April 16, 2006 2:01:30 am
Every day since the January 26, 2001, quake that buried alive 400 of its schoolchildren and teachers during a Republic Day parade, Anjar has waited for a miracle. Every day has ended with less and less hope.
Then yesterday, a 17-year-old they believe is Amit Jethva walked in, from the dead, to a Block 14 house in Mistry Camp-2.
If few dared put words to Anjar’s grief after the earthquake, the town’s disbelief today is even harder to express. It is pouring in at the house in the chawl to look at the 17-year-old; sweets are being distributed in the neighbourhood.
Amit was just a boy, 12 years of age, when he was presumed lost to the quake, that buried School Number 4 in Anjar’s Khatri Chowk. The Anjar taluka panchayat listed him among the dead, though his body was never found.
The boy rescued from Madhya Pradesh and brought to the Jethva house on Friday carries faint memories of his years before the quake, or of that tragic day, and even lesser of the five years when he remained missing. His family says he was taken by a tribal to Madhya Pradesh, where he was tortured and lost his memory.
But for Amit’s mother Jayaben Jethva, a sanitation worker with the Anjar taluka panchayat who spent three years looking for her son after coming to know he might be alive, all that hardly matters.
Nor the changes in appearance. ‘‘He has the same mole near his right ankle. The broad ears, chin, nose and eyes are just like his sisters,’’ she says, showing old photographs. ‘‘There is no doubt that he’s my son…He has lost his memory.’’
Amit’s teachers at School No. 4, run by the Anjar Prathmik Samittee, also have no doubt he is one of their own. ‘‘There have been many physical changes in him, but I think this is our Amit,’’ says principal M V Bhatt. The 17-year-old himself speaks in unclear sentences, a mix of Hindi and Gujarati. He does not recognise any of his four siblings. Dr Shyam Sundar, a physician in Anjar who examined Amit, says: ‘‘He has been branded on the head near the left ear and the scar seems old. Physical and mental harassment at a tender age may have caused memory loss and mental retardation.’’
In 2003, when his cousin was admitted to a Anjar hospital, Jayaben got the first indication from a tribal in the same hospital that her son may be alive. The tribal claimed to have seen a boy matching Amit’s description at Garbara village in Dahod district.
It is believed that a shocked and disturbed Amit somehow reached Garbara after the quake. ‘‘He came to our village soon after the earthquake and started working at a tea stall,’’ says Gopal Agrawal, a village sweetshop owner at Garbara.
But by the time the family reached there, Amit, locally known as Raju, was gone. ‘‘From the photograph we showed around, we were sure that Amit was Raju and continued looking in villages on the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border,’’ says Jayaben. She would hear nothing for three years. ‘‘Then six months ago, we got information that Amit had been taken away by some Madhya Pradesh tribal to Amba village. With the help of Sanip Bhagal, an Amba resident, we could locate him on April 11,’’ says Agrawal, who selflessly helped Jayaben.
A group of around 15 went to Amba on April 11 and after a minor scuffle with his employers, found Amit hidden under a mound of grass. ‘‘Local police helped us rescue Amit by detaining the three tribals, but no case has been registered so far,’’ says Agrawal.
Amit hasn’t been able to help much, only saying: ‘‘They gave me one chapati a day to do cement work. I was made to hide under grass.’’
Jayaben acknowledges that it may be the beginning of a new struggle for the family. A widow, she has four other children to raise, all daughters. ‘‘Amit may be ill, I may have to take care of him for the rest of my life. But all that matters to me is that I have found him,’’ she says.
In some ways, of course, the boy is lucky. All he remembers of that January 26 days is two things: ‘‘There was a school, and an earthquake.’’ Sometimes, as Anjar will tell you, ignorance is best.
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